Hou Zhili arrives at the end of the Irtysh's Kazakhstan section on Sept. 13, 2016.
By Sportswriters Xue Yanwen and Pan Ying
URUMQI, Oct. 31 (Xinhua) -- The Irtysh River flows from Hou Zhili's hometown, and leads to the destination of this kayaker's dream trip. Hou plans to travel to the Arctic Ocean in a most incredible way -- alone on a kayak.
Setting sail from his home in Fuyun County, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the 41-year-old has completed what many see as epic feats -- kayaking unpowered for a total of 2,020 kilometers on the China section and Kazakhstan section of the Irtysh in 2014 and in 2016.
The paddler is preparing for the final and most challenging stage on the 2,200-kilometer long Russia section, plus a 1,000-kilometer long lower reach section of the Ob River to reach the Arctic Ocean.
On Sept. 20, 2016, Hou arrives at Lake Markakol on his way back after finishing his mission on the Kazakhstan section of the Irtysh.
From its source in the Altay Mountain in Fuyun, the 4,248-kilometer long Irtysh River flows northwest through Kazakhstan, and in Russia merges with the Ob River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. The Irtysh is the only river in China that leads to the Arctic Ocean.
His Arctic aspirations began when Hou was a teenager. In the 1980s, several whitewater kayakers' adventured on China's two largest rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, arousing a craze among bold Chinese who took to rafting on streams across the country. Some people succeeded, but many attempts failed, with deadly results.
In Hou's hometown, some youngsters even drifted for hundreds of kilometers along the Irtysh on rafts made of waste tires.
The middle-aged Hou decided to close his graphic design company in 2012 and turned his kayaking hobby into a full-time occupation.
Hou paddles on his kayak on Lake Markakol.
After arduous training, Hou set out alone on August 28, 2014, on his yellow and orange boat from Koktokay, a town near the Irtysh's source. He paddled for 50 kilometers a day, and took 23 days to arrive at Kaba County, where the 520-kilometer long China section ends.
But the river begins to freeze in November and doesn't thaw until April of the next year. In 2015, when it was high time for the journey on the Kazakhstan section, his plan was postponed due to a visa problem.
His chance finally came as tourism cooperation between China and Kazakhstan was enhanced under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan has facilitated visa procedures for Chinese tourists since in 2016.
With the help of travel agencies from both sides of the border, Hou set sail from Jeminay, a Chinese county bordering Kazakhstan, in August 2016. It took him 33 days to finish rowing the 1,500-kilometer long section.
On August 12, 2016, Hou kayaks on Lake Zaysan, of which the only outlet is the Irtysh River.
Hou takes a photo with local children in a fishing village by Lake Zaysan.
The journey was longer and tougher than he expected. The river width and the water velocity varied constantly. He fought hard to keep a pace of 50 kilometers per day and was resupplied every three days.
Hou arrives at Semey City, east Kazakhstan, on August 28, 2016. Behind him is the Semipalatinsk Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Irtysh River.
He camped along the riverbank when dusk fell, sleeping with a knife under his pillow in case of any danger.
"I was very lucky to return from the dangerous trek unharmed," he says.
On his way, the Chinese traveler was deeply moved by the friendly Kazakhstani people who gave him fresh vegetables and fruits and invited him to stay at their homes.
Hou meets with Mark, a local merchant who goes fishing in the wild, in Pavlodar City in northeastern Kazakhstan on Sept. 9, 2016. Mark invites Hou to stay in his camp. To thank him, Hou gives him a pin of his own design, which marks his adventure to the Arctic Ocean.
Hou meets with Andrew, a young Kazakhstani man fishing nearby, on Sept. 10, 2016. He gives Hou a crucian he catches.
A selfie of Hou at his campsite by the river on Sept. 12, 2016.
But it was not a cheap feat; the challenge has cost him most of his savings. To finish the rest of the task, he has to kayak for a longer distance than the total of his two previous trips. He also has to cross the vast and frigid Siberian landscape. The adventure in Russia will be much more demanding physically and financially than the earlier legs.
Hou has just been to Russia in September to assess his travel route and to coordinate with local tourism authorities. He reports that the preparation is going well.
It's getting colder and the Irtysh River is about to freeze, but that is not putting any damper on the paddler's ambition.
Hou plans to start from the Russian city of Omsk in the summer of next year and to paddle all the way to Labytnangi, the last town on the Irtysh. There, he will try to approach the finish line.
Hou returns to Jeminay, a Chinese county bordering Kazakhstan, after completing his journey in Kazakhstan on Sept. 22, 2016.
"I want to be a true hero in the eyes of my daughter," said Hou, who is the father of a 12-year-old girl. Hou's wife, who at first did not understand his drive to complete such a dangerous feat out of safety concerns, is supportive of him now.
"That support inspires me to hold on to my dream, no matter how many challenges I will encounter," Hou adds.
(All photos are provided by Hou Zhili)